On cliches

Cliches (or, if you prefer, clichés, because though the accent's a bit old-fashioned, it points the way towards pronunciation) aren't all that bad.

Not all the time, anyway.

Because they're well-known, a cliche can convey meaning directly in ways that are mutually understood. They're fast, and to some extent ready-made, so we don't have to think about them. These pre-assembled language chunks are ready to go. When we're speaking they can be useful for all of these reasons: immediacy, intelligibility, efficiency.

If you were a lexicographer, you might refer to cliches as being examples of lexical phrases; pre-prepared language for easy insertion. Not all lexical phrases are cliches (there's polywords such as "at any rate", and sentence heads and tails like "Could you just..." and "...if yo don't mind", that are raring to go to start off or complete an enquiry) but all cliches are lexical phrases.

That's why we use them. Over time, the individual words within a cliched phrase have become fused together into a single entity. The phrase "avoid like the plague" might once have been funny, because the Black Death is best skirted around for all kinds of health-troubling reasons, so there's an amusing and perhaps jarring exaggeration to a social or other situation that one might not want to get involved with. Through over-use, though, any novelty or invention associated with the phrase has been worn away. All that's left is the base meaning of "avoid".

In everyday speech then, cliches have their place. Heck, in drama or fiction, a character using cliched terms might be useful, either for reasons of immediacy or because it tells us something about that character (their lack of imagination, for example).

However, someone who can only converse in cliches, whether that person's real or fictional, is going to get boring to be with sharpish. And if you're the writer, and cliches infest your writing (both dialogue and descriptive) then it's you that are boring. And boring writers don't get read.   

So here's what I do. Maybe it'll work for you. Perhaps you've got a different approach to cliche; if so, share!

In the first draft, I don't worry, but I'm mindful of the potential for cliche. If one appears in a sentence, and it's immediately apparent that it's there (not as easy as it may appear because if I'm writing, then I'm often too focused on getting the words down than to fully appreciate what words are actually appearing on the left-hand side of the cursor) then I'll sort it out.

How?

I'll tell you in a minute.

If I can't operate straight away, then I'll flag the sentence up. I'm a Word user, so I'll use the comments facility to leave myself a message. Then I keep writing.  

Between the first and second draft (and usually the day after writing the first draft, as my routine is to re-read the previous day's work, and then sort out any typos and vivid language no-nos before getting on with the fresh day's word count. I remove the comments as I work, to tell myself that the issue's been seen to. 

Now, there'll doubtless be over-used phrases that'll get by a first or even a second draft, but with a little distance from the words, some focus, and a thimbleful of creativity, then cliches can be eradicated. 

My way of approaching cliches is to look for a way to twist the original slightly; just enough to retain the intended meaning, but with something - anything - that makes it different. Here's an example:

Ist draft: as pretty as a picture

2nd draft: as pretty as a photograph/landscape/portrait/cameo/mugshot

Not very creative perhaps, but there's a few options to select from, and I'd argue that each of them is better than the over-used "picture". And that's just from playing with one word. Can we do better than "pretty"?

And of course, the phrase "as pretty as a picture" is a simile. Any form of modifying word or phrase (adjective, adverb etc) should be scrutinized also. If it's needed, fair enough, That's your justification to use it. If not, and it's just an easy word that's inveigled its way in during first-drafting, then there's an easy edit to be made.

And does the sentiment even need to be there? Cliched writing can be filler. Stuff you write as you're working out what it is that you're really trying to say. Can it be cut? If so, then delete.   

So, a) I try to be aware of cliched phrases, and b) leave myself notes to act on them later if I'm not going to do that work immediately. Then c) I make a change small enough to keep a relationship to the original, but sufficient to keep the language as fresh as I can.

If I can, I cut.

The best cure for cliche is to read more. If you read other people using particular phrases, either repeatedly or jarringly, then that's something to remember for your own practice; not to use those constructions yourself.  

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Books by me are here, by the way: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eamonn-Griffin/e/B00XJEK2PC

 

Torc: origins - getting the original idea down

This is a post about where my novel Torc came from.

It's August 2011, and I'm in London for the week working on my doctorate. Actually, I'm not. Not unless you consider wandering around the capital acting like a tourist as representing high-level academic endeavour. Which, for me, qualifies as work. So, yes, I'm counting it.

So, yep. I'm hard at it.

It's the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend; naturally I'm in the City of London. A couple of streets have been cordoned off because there's some filming going on. The financial district is like that; a ghost town outside the working week. Ideal for filming purposes. I skirt the shoot. No, I don't see anyone famous. 

I've been walking the path of the book that I'm working on as part of the PhD - I'm getting the timings right for my characters walking around the area. You can do this: 21st century London is pretty much laid out according to the medieval and earlier street systems.

And besides, I tend to gravitate back to Pudding Lane, the Monument, and the environs of the immediate Great Fire of London geography. If you've read The Prospect of This City, you'll see why.    

So I'm there or thereabouts. Not that far from the multiple entries into Bank/Monument tube station, though on this occasion I've walked over the Millennium Bridge, skirted St Paul's, and headed east.

And then it hits me. An idea drops from the Story Gods, or rises from the Hell Of Unprocessed Vaguely Promising Ideas. It doesn't matter. I've got to capture it, whatever it is.

I don't know about you, but when an idea arrives for me, it comes in one of two ways. It's about 50/50 which way it'll be. Half of the time, an image or a fragment of prose will roll around, or there'll be a creative red flag that posts itself next to something. Finding out what the whole idea might turn out to be then becomes akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle of uniform grey tiles - they're all face down  - when you've only got one bit where you can see the bigger picture. And the box the bits isn't to hand. So you've got to assemble it the hard way.

This wasn't like that. It was one of the other occasions. When you get a bulk delivery of story all at once. It's like Santa dropping in. When I was a little 'un, I had (as did my siblings) a paper sack (I was born in the late 60s and we didn't use plastic for that kind of thing, you young whippersnapper). And so Father Christmas left his presents in the sack, which had been put out at the end of the bed. All you had to do was to empty it out to see what you'd got.

I'm in possession of a sackful of story. It's old, old advice this, but it's nevertheless right; record that idea in some way, and then come back to it. If you trust to memory then there's no guarantees that you'll even be able to recall that you had something important not to forget. So write it down. Send yourself a text, write a memo on your phone or on the back of your hand. Whatever. Just get that notion preserved.  

A few words won't do that for this, though. I've got pens and notebooks in my bag. Let's sit down and scribe it out.

There's a Starbucks at the north end of Pudding Lane, at the junction of Eastcheap and Gracechurch Street. I go in. Being the weekend it's all but empty, save for staff and a huddle of five young male City workers; they're discussing some office coup they're scheming. They're all in suits despite the weekend and they each give off the whiff of not being sure about what to have worn. Each has snuck off from a significant other with a tall tale about having to go into the office for a couple of hours.

I get a coffee and a pot of yoghurty breakfast mulch. And I start writing. It takes about an hour and a half. I buy a second coffee at the half-way point. By the time I'm done, I've got the whole thing charted out, chapter by chapter. Soup to nuts. it's out of my head and onto the page. At some point between coffee number two and finishing up, the City boys have scuttled away. 

And oh, the relief.

I'm left-handed, and I drag my hand over what I write. I do what I can in the coffee shop loos to soap off the ink stain from the gel pen, but all it does is fade some. Ah well.

It's done, and that's the main thing. 

This is where the idea stays. It's not until 2014 that I come back to it. I re-read the notes, find them workable, and start thinking about how to go about writing a first draft.

Other ideas then come to hand: a couple of holidays that I've been on give me location details - I end up using aspects of a Welsh coastal village and a Scottish one to synthesise the eventual main location - and I write up an opening list of research needs, plus some initial character notes. There's nothing that can't be back-filled though, no information that I can't proceed without. So I get to work. Eighteen months later,some shifting priorities (both writing and otherwise) and here we are. Job done.

I may well have written the same core idea if I hadn't made those notes. I might have let it go altogether. I might have had that nagging doubt; that I'd let a book slip away. This way, at least, I don't have to wonder. For good or ill, the core of Torc was captured on August bank holiday, on a Saturday morning, in a chain coffee shop, when I should really have been doing something else.  

Torc is available here.

The Prospect of This City is available here.    

 

 

        

     

     

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has been around since the late 1980s. It’s a variant of timeboxing workload-management methods. It’s simplicity itself, and - for me - it works. Here’s how:

Your work period is divided into half-hour chunks. Say that you’re going to write for a couple of hours. That’s four lots of thirty minutes each. The trick is to work for 25 minutes, and then rest for 5. And then repeat.

The Pomodoro Technique takes its name from the clockwork plastic tomato (other fruits and vegetables are available) kitchen timer. Use the timer to keep track of the minutes. If you prefer, there are no end of browser plug-ins and downloadable apps that you can use instead, but there’s something pleasingly low-fi about the old-school approach. Plus the ticking of the clock adds an incentive.     

A 25-minute Pomodoro usually means that I’ll write about 600 first draft words. There’s an element of race-against-time, plus the nearness of the finishing line doesn't give time to slacken off. The 5 minute break allows for a regroup and/or a reward. If the rest itself isn’t enough, then make a drink / have a smoke / go for that pee you’ve been holding off from / whatever. And then back into it for another 25 minutes.

So in that two hours, I’ll get down about 2400 words.

As a first-draft tool it works really well for me. Also, it can be useful for making use of relatively small periods of downtime. Got an hour between TV programmes? 2 x Pomodoros, and another thousand words in the bag.

It’s not an all-day tool for writing; a couple of hours first thing, and then another couple later in the day would be my preferred option. 

Try it out! And if it doesn’t work for you, then at least you’ve found another method that’s not perfect for your writing.

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The Prospect of This City is out now and is available from me (signed if you prefer!) and also in both paperback and ebook via Amazon.